How Dangerous, Lawless Was the "Wild West"?

Hollywood’s popular depiction of the American Wild West evokes images of cattle-trail towns overrun with gun-totin’, whiskey-guzzlin,’ hair-trigger cutthroats who wouldn’t hesitate to pump you full of lead at the slightest provocation.

My own impression is that gun fights back then (circa 1850-1890) were rare and that people were more civilized than Hollywood credits them.

Without swerving into the O.K. Corrall that is IMHO, how do the per capita violence statistics of today’s cities compare with those of the Wild West? How common was it for men to wear guns in these towns? How common to fire them? How do other crime rates compare?

According to this site:

Also turned up with a google search:

From the Harvard Journal of Legislation:

From this site:

See also Violence in the Cattle Towns for some interesting reading:

“Good-byr God, I’m going to Bodie”

  • alleged diary enntry of young girl whose family was moving to Bodie CA, ca 1885

typos cheerfully ignored - inquire within :slight_smile:

Would a giunfight be considered a homicide?

What was the definition of a homicide in the “wild west”?

Of course a (lethal) gunfight is homicide; homicide is merely the killing of a human being. If you mean “is it murder?”, it boils down to who started it.

I think that’s the question. John Wesley Hardin, for example, was alleged to have killed over thirty people, but at least some of them weren’t “murders” in the typical sense of the word. I do think there were a reasonable number of irritable people in the Old West, but if you had the sense not to gamble with people like Hardin, you’d do all right.

I cannot cite this, but somehow I came to believe that cowboys carried guns because it wan’t unusual for a range cow to attack a cowboy and he had to be able to shoot the varmint. The cattle back then were range wild and really dangerous.

I’m actually old enough and from a long enough lived family (both grandmothers born in California in the 19th century) to tell you that Hollywood is for the most part bunk. 'Cept for the “historical” stuff like the gunfight at the ok corral, etc. None of my ancestors ever reported being in or seeing a gunfight. Rumor has it though that a rogue bunch of distant cousins had a whorehouse in San Diego through about a 100 years ago or more.

Hollywood uses the old west to tell myth type fables with violent consequences in semi realistic settings.

Another typical myth of this kind was the notorious Hollister motorcycle rally of the late 1940s, where zillions of motorcycle riders came to Hollister California for a few days. The national news reports from the time indicated that lawlessness ensued. Nope. Just media hype. How do I know. Well my mother lived during the summers in Hollister and was there and an older teenager at the time. The house was within a block or two from downtown on the main drag. She wasn’t in the slightest afraid, and if there was anything to be afraid of, my mom would be terrified of it. The riders were all very pleasant and well behaved.

Alternatively, O’Neal’s Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters documents several hundred gunfights between 1850 and 1900–and he included only those fights that were specifically notorious or that involved notorious people.

The list of towns with only a couple of homicides per year always start in 1870–the period when those towns were “shut down” with harsh laws limiting when and where guns could be carried following the period when they truly were “wide open.”

I am not arguing that the West was as wild as movies have made it seem. I’m sure that most towns at most times were fairly peaceful. However, there was a lot of violence in the West. It was frequent in new towns (“Hell on Wheels” at the end of railroad track laying, newly opened “gold strike” towns, etc.) and it was periodic when established ranchers decided to launch “wars” against more recent settlers. The death tolls of the Lincoln County War and the Johnson County War were not small and the fight surrounding the Earp-Clanton feud resulted in more than a dozen deaths outside the fight at the OK Corral. Several towns decided to clean up their images by lynching every undesirable they could find, and a few of those lynch parties made it into double digits.

So, while the “whole West” was not a boiling maelstrom of havoc and murder, it certainly carried the potential to erupt in carnage at specific places.

According to the firs reply, “Sixteen of the 45 homicides were committed by duly authorized peace officers”. So they seem to be counting legal homicides as well as illegal ones.

From what I’ve read, the “Wild West” is generally considered to have started around 1870 and lasted until the late 1880s, slowly becoming “less wild” through the turn of the Century. The image we have of the Wild West generally starts with the cattle drives that began in 1867. Prior to that America was preoccupied by the Civil War, and before the Civil War more of the west was occupied by the American aboriginals. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to start with 1870, a year when the cattle drives were fully operating and the “cow towns” had grown.

I’d have to dispute this a bit :). Settlement of CA ( first wagon train ) began in 1841, Oregon in 1842, Utah in 1847, CA Gold Rush was in 1849 ( the famed '49ers - 80,000 that first year ) and the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. This isn’t even to mention the long storied history of trappers and traders folowing in the footsteps ( or preceding ) the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804.

You might say 1870 was when the West began, slowly, to become “civilized”, but there is a great deal of western history before that, including quite a bit more lawlessness.

  • Tamerlane

Tamerlane: I wasn’t clear. Sorry. You are correct that 1870 was when the West began to become “civilized”. Cattle drives were, after all, commerce; and they would not have been possible had the U.S. government not undertaken their program of genocide against the native population. The fact that people were able to engage in such commerce in relative safety would indicate that the West was being tamed.

What I meant was that the “Wild West” most people are familiar with from Hollywood was the cattle drive era. Yes, there was the Gold Rush (many people did not come overland, BTW – they arrived by ship) and the trappers. But at that time the “West” – Texas, Missouri, the Oklahoma Territory, etc. was pretty much unsettled.

You mentioned that the TC Railroad was completed in 1869. Close enough to 1870. Indeed, the railroad was one of the reasons there were cattle drives. Ranchers in Texas could drive their cattle north to Abilene or Dodge and load them onto trains for processing in Chicago.

Most of the Hollywood Westerns take place between 1873 and 1881. So the “Wild West” that people think of, as opposed to the “Frontier West”, was during this era. When people talk about the “Wild West”, they’re generally talking about Dodge City, Matt Dillon, Bonanza, Rio Bravo – the 1870s. The shootout at the OK Corral took place in 1881.

So you’re right that 1870 was when civilization really started to take hold, but that’s also pretty close to the start of the “Wild West”. After all, you can’t give someone 10 minutes to get out of town when there isn’t a town. :wink:

Johnny L.A.: Ah, I see where you’re coming from now. Still, the OP did throw out the much broader 1850-1890 period. Of course he also mentioned the “Hollywood West”, so I guess we’re even :wink: .

You’re probably generally correct that most Westerns covered the post-1870 milieu, though I can think of a few notable exceptions ( the strong McCabe and Mrs. Miller, for example ). In general I’d say they were exaggerated, but with a real kernel of truth. The problem is the gradual bleed over from the “frontier” period ( when some prominent merchant or trading post owner could rule a small community as a virtual fiefdom a la The Claim ) into the slightly more genteel “Wild West” of Wild Bill Hickok’s Abilene( also the transition from territories to states ).

So while, the “Wild West” may not have been quite as violent as Hollywood has romanticized it, I agree with tomndeb that taken as a whole it was still, potentially at least, a lot more lawless than modern times.

  • Tamerlane

My understanding is that the oft-depicted “showdown”–two men facing each other with holstered guns, ready to draw and fire–was largely fiction. Probably happened a handful of times, but not the dozens or hundreds that the movies would lead one to believe.

In this you are probably correct. Hickock was in two. The fight at the OK corral was a big one. There are a few others. However, as O’Neal’s aforementioned book records, a lot of the gunfights were spur of the moment brawls and a lot more were carried out in feuds and ambushes. John Wesley Hardin has the most confirmed “kills” and I can’t think of any fights where he met his opponent in the street. When he wasn’t shooting them from ambush, he was hauling out his gun and shooting people in saloons (often when they were not really expecting a gunfight).

The most common substitute for the “meet him in the street” scenario was the “I’ll kill you for that” (as various people hauled out guns and began shooting from wherever they were).

IIRC, Hickock warned the man who won his watch in a poker game not to wear it in the street. The man did, and Hickock shot him.

Well, yeah, you meet somebody in the street and give him a chance to go for his gun, you could wind up dead.

Are those numbers (for murders in the Wild West towns vs. Cincinnati, Boston, New York, etc.) absolute or per capita? What were the populations of these Wild West towns and of the comparable large Eastern cities during those years?